Yesterday’s Cars of Tomorrow

Report from L.A.’s second-fiddle auto show.

My God, now a fungus is eating at a BMW’s headlights!  (Click on the xActivity Concept car or the related video.) It must be another Bangle brainstorm! No doubt there is a highly persuasive theory behind it. But the BMW official who unveils the car in the video does not seem overly enthusiastic, calling it “a possible direction.” …

Monday, January 6, 2003

Yesterday’s Cars of Tomorrow: I’ve now visited the L.A. auto show, which is a little like going to see the 1,693d performance of Cats. While the hot new models are being introduced at the big Detroit show, we Southern Californians get the tired old cars of the future that have been schlepped around the show circuit for a year or two.  The L.A. show does inadvertently provide a nice retrospective look at which new models and prototypes have held up over the months and which haven’t. (We’re talking looks here, mainly. That’s what auto shows are about, right?)

Honda’s Gen-Y Box

Big winner: Honda Element. Lots of carmakers are displaying box-like, punky anti-style vehicles. There’s Toyota’s Scion xB, Nissan’s slightly dowdy Cube, Ford’s attractive but oddly-named Faction. (Next: the Chevy Consensus!) But Honda beat them to market. You can buy an Element today – and once you see it and root around in it you’ll probably want to. It will also be interesting to see how the anti-SUV crowd reacts to the Element, which looks a bit like an SUV but also like a socialist car– the kind of unpretentious, utilitarian, and efficient vehicle anti-materialist eggheads have been telling us to drive for years.

Maybach: Maybe not

Big loser: Maybach. $320,000 for a car that looks like a giant Hyundai? Maybe Mercedes, the Maybach’s maker, isn’t that smart after all. You could easily see Maybach’s PR tipping, with its product becoming the whipping boy for a press and public annoyed with conspicuous overconsumption in a time of war and high gas prices, etc., etc. Who wants to drive a car people throw tomatoes at? Suggested motto:“Making the world safe for Lexus.”


More winners:

Cadillac XLR convertible: Slim and classy.

Chevy Bel-Air: Cheap retro cues, but not entirely a PT-Cruiser-like cartoon.


Mosler: It is what it is. Fewer gratuitous vents than the competing Saleen S7.

Dodge Magnum SRT-8: I actually missed this one in my mad dash around the hall, but it looks great in the photos.

More losers:

Jaguar XJ: This is the new model? How do we tell?

Maserati: Dullest exotic car design ever?

Mazda RX8: Not dull. Actively ugly.

On the bubble:

Chrysler Pacifica: Once it seemed like a new category of car. Now it seems like a station wagon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But why the cheap black panels?

Saturn Ion: So not trying to be attractive that it transcends conventional categories of beauty. If it’s reliable, it will be a winner.


Pontiac GTO: Not much presence, but if it’s fast enough …

All other Pontiacs: Memo to Mr. Lutz: If you’re going to get rid of the tacky plastic corrugations and gimmicks that have characterized Pontiacs the past decade, go all the way. Don’t leave a couple of little fake-zoomy imprinted darts that spoil everything.

Aston Martin DBAR-1: Like Jaguar’s XK, it looks a little too much like a Chrysler Sebring.

Chrysler Crossfire: Surprisingly ordinary after a couple of years – which is not necessarily bad. Looks like I might afford it!


Special commendations:

Cheapest-looking paint job: Saturn Ion

Cheapest-looking wheels: Maybach!

Sunday, January 5, 2003

Monster Caddy from the Id: When the introduction of a new car makes the Drudge Report, you know something’s happening. Newsweek’s Keith Naughton has an inside account of the proposed ultra-expensive ($250,000) Cadillac Sixteen. The buried lede: GM’s designated revitalizer (and press fave) Bob Lutz “hated” Cadillac’s current sharp-edged “Art and Science” styling, and fought an internal battle against the Caddy styling team. Lutz wanted something swoopier. Cadillac designer Brian Smith worried that


he would have to blend the two designs to keep both his bosses happy. “When you mix and match designs,” Smith fretted, “it usually ends up bad.”

Alas, from Naughton’s account, and the single photo on Newsweek’s site, it looks like that’s exactly what happened. We’ll know more soon when pictures of the car’s debut at this week’s Detroit auto show appear, presumably sometime tomorrow. Watch this space. … P.S.: Even Lutz worries about whether GM has the skilled and dedicated work force necessary to build a car worth this much money. (“Yeah, you’d worry about that, but I think it’s doable.”) If the Sixteen’s construction is contracted-out, what does that say about GM’s faith in GM’s employees? Yet if all the good UAW workers are drafted to build the Sixteen, who’s going to be left to put together the regular old $48,000 Caddies? … P.P.S.: A reference to the “Cadiddy” styling team in an earlier version of this post was a Freudian typo. My apologies. On the other hand, Cadiddy isn’t a bad name for the flashy, expensive new vehicle, is it? … Update: The Cadiddy has landed, and can be viewed here. First take: Great proportions, confused details. There’s also a video of the unveiling at GM’s Web site, here  (click on “Cadillac Press Event”)  …


Friday, January 3, 2003

Z4, De-Bangled: Some read “Gearbox” and turn the page. Others take action. Reader Charles Gordon writes:

When I saw the photos of the Z4 my first instinct was to go into Photoshop and remedy the flaws as best I could.

The results are below. Gordon hasn’t erased 50 percent of BMW design chief Chris Bangle’s brainstorms, as recommended here  – as far as I can see he’s only erased the gratuitous “bungle line” extending down from the windshield and pointlessly bisecting the little BMW emblem. But it already looks so much better! There’s a new, muscle-like grace to the (now-unbroken) front-fender sweep. …


Gordon thinks the car is “still not attractive,” but the improvement is enough to suggest a market opportunity for entrepreneurs ready to sell after-market sheet metal to Z4 buyers wishing to de-Bangle their vehicles. I agree. Bangle has also magnanimously created an opportunity for unemployed or unappreciated auto designers to show what they can do, shaping fenders that improve on BMW’s. … It won’t be hard! … (The snapshot that Gordon altered, above, was an official BMW photo. Two words: Fair use!) … Update: Gordon says that in addition to eliminating the “bungle line” he straightened out the bottom of the door line. It makes a big difference. …

Endlich your own Teufel, buddy:  Gearbox’s Fray is good – better than some other Frays I could name. Better, perhaps, than Gearbox. Thanks for all the … um … [spirited-ed.] spirited comments.  In agreement with Fraywatcher J.D. Connor,  I recommend this post  (arguing that BMW is too slavishly following an intellectual idea) as well as this comment. Also this apparent insider buzz from Munich, which raises the highly topical issue of whether the Z4 is fanning the flames of anti-Americanism. …


Thursday, December 19, 2002

I won’t always be negative, I promise – but the new, long-overdue Nissan Maxima sure looks like an Extra Large Saturn Ion  to me. …


Blog King Instapundit has already written  about our joint, ill-fated attempt to comparison drive a new Nissan 350Z  against its much-ballyhooed sister vehicle, the  Infiniti G35 Coupe. He’s even got a highly embarrassing photo. Suffice it to say that the Nissan salespeople in Knoxville, Tenn., wouldn’t let us move the “Z” – they wanted to deliver a virginal car to the buyer who’d ordered it. The neighboring Infiniti dealer was far friendlier, letting us drive off in a G35 Coupe by ourselves. (The Infiniti, while  gorgeous, seemed a bit insubstantial for a $30,000 car.) But the telling moment came at the end of our visit, when someone pulled up to the dealership in a 1964 Pontiac GTO convertible. Suddenly, all the expensive modern cars in the showroom – and this dealer also sold Porsches and Audis – seemed like so much overpriced dross. As we left, we looked back and noticed that about seven or eight of the salesmen whose job it was to tout new $40,000-$100,000 luxury vehicles had gathered around the 38-year-old Goat to ogle and comment. I wish Instapundit had taken a photo of that. … Moral: If you want to get maximum style and sex appeal for your money, you’re much better off buying a 60s-era American classic than even a stylish new car. By far the best car I’ve ever driven, in terms of impressing people, was a $1,500 1965 Buick Skylark convertible. …  And what does it say about contemporary car design that when the producers of last summer’s Vin Diesel thriller XXX were looking for a cool vehicle to have their hero drive, they couldn’t do any better than … another 1960s-era GTO. … (The Diesel character actually deals in modern black market Ferraris, which are treated as disposable.) …

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Bangle Update: It’s worth looking at some of the comments made by those who have signed the “Stop Chris Bangle” petition. I’m not sure exactly what

“Jagt Chris Bangle endlich zum Teufel!”

means, but it doesn’t sound good. … Meanwhile, the LAT delivers a positive Z4 road test that glosses over the big BMW styling story. … P.S.: I should have made it clearer that I like the controversial styling of the expensive 7 Series sedan, including its menacing battleship trunk. But the 7 Series doesn’t feature much of Bangle’s contrived “flame surfacing.” …